Riel’s Religion of Rebellion


Frank Yeigh September 1 1912

Riel’s Religion of Rebellion


Frank Yeigh September 1 1912

Riel’s Religion of Rebellion


Frank Yeigh

With the approaching anniversary of the execution of Louis Riel, the attention of Canadians once again will be directed to the “strange character who for a few troublous years played a part in the drama of the West.” It is a different country to-day to that over which Riel attempted his domination during the stirring times of thirty years ago which culminated in the North-West Rebellion. And yet the story of the uprising is none the less interesting on that account. With the lapse of time, however, a new light has been thrown upon the character of the turbulentspirited Metis leader, as will be seen from this sketch.

ON November 16, 1885, twenty-seven years ago, Louis David Riel was executed at Regina.

With his death there passed away a strange character who for a few troublous years played a part in the drama of the West. In the storm and stress period that marked the transition of the Great Lone Land from a Hudson’s Bay Company Preserve to a trio of thriving provinces; in the period represented by the transfer of the Indian from an untrammelled roamer of the plains to a Reserve Child of the Government, Riel Hits across the stage

like a meteor, creating unrest and breeding discontent alike in tepee and cabin and pioneer settlement.

He whose dust rests to-day in the quiet St. Boniface Churchyard, was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the filling of many another grave as the result of the rebellious twain. The tomb of the turbulentspirited Metis leader looks across the river to old Upper Fort Garry within which he set up his shortlived Provisional Government and proclaimed his Revolutionary Bill of Rights and where he ordered the execution of Thomas Scott.

Whata flood of water has passed beneath the St. Boniface bridge since the stormy days of 1870 and 1885! Winnipeg has been born since the first date ; a new Canada has come into being since the second, and the echoes of the halfbreed uprisings sound faintly over the intervening spans. To the new and latest generation, the story of Riel and his rebellions must needs be told as history—history Jhat to the school child appears to be t&ry remote, so swiftly does time travel in the growing Westland.


Harking back to 1800, for the purposes of a brief historic review, the following edict was issued under the signature of Riel :—

“To Hon. W. Macdougall,

Sir,—The National Committee of the Metis (Half-Breeds) of the Red River order Mr. W. Macdou-

gall not to enter the territory of the North West without the special permission of this committee. By order of the President, John Bruce. Louis Riel, Secretary. Dated at St. Norbert, Red River, the 21st October, 1869.”

Such was the reception given the governor of the North West Territories, on reaching the boundary line of his domain at Pembina. The little colony of half a thousand whites and halfbreeds was marked by incessant intrigue and mutual jealousies. Interests of race and religion, as well as of commerce, clashed in the contest for control. The local condition could be likened to a powder magazine, and the man with the match—and with the will of purpose to strike it—was discovered in Riel. Possessing exceptional gifts of speech, and closely associated with the half-breeds, Riel voiced the sentiments of that element in the population

and by so doing became their leader. When the question of the transfer of the Hudson Bay possessions in the North West to the recently constituted Dominion became imminent, and the discontent of the disaffected elements in the country was fanned to a danger point, the Metis orator took up the role of a

revolutionist and the position of a dictator, leading what has passed into history as the first Red River revolt. From the place the uprising takes in the history of Canada, it may mistakenly be regarded as a trivial tempest in a very small teapot, and the loss of the Red River country would at that time, as a historian has written, have probably prevented, or materially postponed the Confederation of the provinces and thereby the consolidation of British power in the New World.

Proclamations succeeded proclamations with a frequency that marked the

rule of the Dutch in New York under the redoubtable Peter De Stuyvesant as chronicled in Irving’s Knickerbock History. But they were unavailing in both cases. The “National Committee” continued to defy Governor Macdougall, and the Half-Breed Council called a National Convention. The authority of the Hudson Bay Company was flaunted, the books of the Council of Assiniboine seized and action was taken to form a Provisional Government, which in turn issued its famous “Bill of Rights.” It was but a step to open rebellion, and this was soon taken by Riel, whose first act was to imprison some of the protesting inhabitants in Fort Garry, of which possession had l een taken. Terrorism reigned on the 1 anks of the Red and the Assiniboine. As Governor Adam writes, “insurgency now reigned, and the year closed on loyalty abashed and law discomfited.”

Riel and his insurgent deputies, Lenine and O’Donoghue, issued “The New Nation,” “in which the wdiole miserable farce of playing at Government may be read with the pitiful gasconade of gallic cockiness, Fenian sedition and Plalfbreed insolence.”


The first bloodshed in the revolt was the shooting of Thomas Scott by Riel’s orders, after a so-called court martial— a cold-blooded murder that for long years after stirred the indignation of many Canadians. A reign of terror ensued in the Western plains. A force of troops was despatched under Colonel Wolseley. Stirring was the scene when the little army left Toronto on May 25, 1870, proceeding by water to Fort William and following the six-hundredmile trail of the Dawson route to Fort Garry, which was reached on August 24th after a long and toilsome threemonths’ journey.

But the Fort was minus its commander and its government. A brief hour before the troops arrived, Riel had fled. Both the “government” and the rebel army melted away, and the erneute of 1870 was at an end.

One of the surviving members of the expedition was Mr. S. Bruce Harman, of Toronto, who was aide de camp to Col. Wolseley, and who has preserved some of the mementoes found by him in the evacuated rooms of the primitive little stronghold. By Mr. Harman’s kind permission, some of the interesting proclamations issued at that time are here reproduced.

The time passed and 1885 was reached in the calendar of the years, and

with it the second North West Rebellion. Again, a revolutionary Bill of Rights appeared; again it bore the marks of Riel’s handiwork. The embers of half-breed discontent, that had been smouldering for years, broke out into war when the first rebel act took place in the seizure of the Batoche stores. A half breed and Indian force of 200 mustered near Duck Lake, under Gabriel Dumont, mounted on serviceable Indian ponies and armed with Winchester rifles and shot guns. A

force of eighty Mounted Police, with forty civilians and volunteers, was on its way from Fort Carlton to Duck Lake ta convey the government stores to Prince Albert. In a few minutes the first blood of the rebellious uprising was shed. In a trice scores of the Police force fell, victims not alone to the rebel band, but to all the causes of discontent that had led to the uprising. As in 1870, another military force was turned to the prairies. All Canada was

agitated and war rumors accentuated the public unrest. Once more Toronto witnessed the marching of an expeditionary force through its streets, every man eager for the work awaiting him and for the long two-thousand mile journey to the front. Other parts of Canada contributed their quota of fighting men, whose transport over the in comple ted Lake Superior section of the Canadian Pacific Railway involved the surmounting of colossal difficulties, and no survivor will ever forget the

painful negotiation of the gaps in the rail route.

“On to Qu’Appelle!” was the slogan of Middleton’s army. “On to Battleford !” the cry of Otter’s flying column. It is not necessary to recount all the incidents of the subsequent struggle— of the Frog Lake massacre, of the fight at Cut Knife Hill, of the Fish Creek campaign, of the battle of Batoche, of the dread counting of the cost of war, with its cruel human toll of death. But the end finally came, and with it a gaol ful! of prisoners and a cry for punishment of Riel and his fellow rebels.


The finale of the unfortunate and unsuccessful rebel leader was a pathetic one, as all unsuccessful revolutionists ultimately discover. Success means a

monument, a niche-filled place in the national hall of fame, an adulatory chapter in history; but failure—an arrest, a prison cell, a trial by jury, and a hangman’s rope.

The final scenes in the tragedy of a misdirected life were enacted in Regina —the Regina of the Pile-o’-Bones day, covering but little territory, and surrounded by vast' unpeopled stretches, the Regina that never then dreamed of being the capital city of a province yetto-be.

Rarely has a trial been held in Canada in which a more dramatic interest centred. The second uprising was still fresh in the public mind, the participating soldiery had not had time to meet

in annual reunion of Bat oche or Duck Lake or Cut Knife Hill, while the fact that the miniature war and its corollaries had. become a political theme only added to the feverish interest.

It is not to be (Wondered at, therefore, that the eyes of Canada were on the little prairie city, on the dingy barracks of the Mounted Police, where Riel was a prisoner, and on the circumscribed court room where his fate was to be determined. On the bench sat His Honor Hugh Richardson, then one of the Stipendarv Magistrates of the NorthWest Territories, a man who played an important part in the foundation, laying of the West, and in the establishment and maintenance of law and order.

The leading legal lights of the Dominion faced each other, with the late Christopher Robinson as Crown Counsel, and associates in Messrs. B. B. Osier


of Toronto, Burbidge of Ottawa, Casgrain of Quebec, and Scott of Regina. The counsel for the defence of Riel were Messrs. Charles Fitzpatrick and F. X. Lemieux of Quebec.

Into the court room is led the manacled prisoner, who hears read the three-fold indictment charging him “as a British subject, or as a resident enjoying Her Majesty’s protection in the North-West Territories, with having levied war against Her Majesty, first at Duck Lake, secondly at Fish Creek, and thirdly at Batoche.” Even at this distance of time one can easily believe that, as the jury was one by one selected, the accused anxiously watched the face of every man as though he could read their inmost thoughts. One can easily picture the arraignment of the prisoner by that peer among arraigners, the late B. B.

Osier, as he brought home to Riel his guilt, and as he dwelt on the death and suffering caused to others by the ambition of one man. Little wonder that every prisoner who ever stood before the bar of justice trembled, if guilty, when facing the great criminal lawyer.

Witness after witness—white settlers, loyal half-breeds, Batoche prisoners, Indian traders, military commanders and Mounted Policemen, missionaries, medical experts—tell their stories that were so many strands in the rope that was gradually being woven for the prisoner’s final undoing. The evidence was in effect a verbal history of both rebellions.

Suddenly the orderly quiet of the judicial proceedings is interrupted by an excited demand on the part of. Riel to interrogate a hostile witness, and thus to help in conducting his own case. Riel’s counsel objects to his client being allowed such a privilege, but Riel persists and hours are spent in fruitless altercation until the court is summarily adjourned as a way out of the tangle.

The chief cause of the prisoner’s excitement was his counsel’s effort to press the claim of insanity, a plea which he strongly objected to all through the

trial. One of the allegations of his insanity was a reference to a book of prophecies written by Riel in buffalo blood. One authority on insanity described the prisoner’s disease as megalomania, one who often imagines he is a king and divinely inspired—suffering from supreme egotism in a word as one of the complications of paralytic insanity.

Dramatic in the extreme was Riel’s address to the jury. One eye-witnessing chronicler commented at the time “At any rate he spoke with a belief that he was right, but as he proceeded the quiet and low tone was discarded, the body swayed to and fro in strong agitation, his hands accomplished a series of wonderful gestures as he spoke with impassioned eloquence. His hearers were spell-bound, and well they might, as each concluding assertion with terrible earnestness was uttered with the effect and force of a trumpet blast.”

“It would be an easy matter for me to play the role of a lunatic,” cries the man on trial. “The natural excitement and anxiety which my trial causes me is enough to justify me in acting in the manner of a demented man.” Then the prisoner, fighting, it must be remembered, for his life, broke into a

strange mixture of speech: “Oh, my God, help me through the grace and divine influence of Jesus. Oh, my God, bless me, bless this court, bless this jury, and bless my good lawyers who have come nearly 700 leagues to defend me. Bless the lawyers for the Crown, for they have done what they considered their duty. God grant that fairness be shown. Oh, Jesus, change the curiosity of the ladies and others here to sanctity. The day of my birth I was helpless, and my mother was helpless. Somebody helped her. I lived, and although a man I am as helpless to-day as I was as a babe on my mothers breast. But the North-west is also my mother; although the Northwest is sick and confined, there is someone to take care of her. I am sure that my mother will not kill me after forty years of life. My mother cannot take my life. She will be indulgent and will forget.”

But his mother of the North-west did not forget, or forgive. The trial ends.

The jury is sent to its work and for an hour deliberates as to a man’s life. During those terrible sixty minutes the prisoner is on his knees praying incessantly. What must it be to live through such a space of time, brief as the clock travels; eternally-long in the suffering of suspense!

“Is the prisoner guilty, or not guilty?”

“Guilty, with a recommendation to mercy.”

The trial of Riel is at an end. When the judge pronounces the death sentence and the date, the doomed man is again in control, of himself. Not a muscle moves as, bowing to the court, he quietly asks “Is that on Friday, your Honor?” And the curtain rings down on this act of the tragedy as the ex-rebel leader is driven under a strong escort to the guard room which is now to be his death cell.

Appeals to other courts are in vain, a new trial is refused, the fatal sentence stands. The judge, however, grants a

brief respite—a favor that the doomed man evidently appreciated as the following letter shows:—

“To His Honor Hugh Richardson, Judge, Regina.

“Your Honor: I thank you for having goodly postponed the execution of the sentence against me. I shall make use of those days, added to my life, so as to prepare better. And if by God's Mercy and favourable human decision my life is to be spared, I will endeavor to render it more useful than it has been in the past. I pray to God that twenty-nine years be added to your life, in reward of the twenty-nine days which you have kindly consented to grant me.

“My thinks to all those who have so generously contributed and worked to secure me such precious addition to my days. To you, and to them all, my thanks, but the warmest of my thanks. Very respectfully Your humble and obedient Louis ‘David’ Riel.” 17th September, 1885.

Regina Jail.

One need not dwell at length on the final scene. According to the account given by G. Mercer Adam, Riel met his fate bravely and displayed more forti-

tude than had been thought possible. Throughout his last night on earth he was constant in his devotions. As the last hours sped by, he dropped his new and strange religious ideas and decided to die a devout Catholic, receiving the solemn last sacrament.

The fatal morning broke. The cell was dimly lighted by a small window, covered with a rime of frost through which the sun shot a few weak rays. The prisoner wore a loose woollen surtout, grey trousers, and woolen shirt. On his feet were moccasins, the only feature of his dress that marked the Indian that was in him. He received the notice to proceed to the scaffold in the same composed manner he had shown the previous night on receiving the warning of his fate, and, somewhat against his desire, abstained from making a speech.

“Courage, Pere,” spoke the condemned one, to Father Andre. “I believe still iu God.”

“To the last,” added Father Andre.

“Yes, the very last. I believe and trust in Him. Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on me. Jesus, Marie, Joseph, assistez moi en ce dernier moment.”

And then the darkness! Riel was no more! The Metis leader had met the demands of the inexorable law !